Let’s discover Gillian’s journey in customer success.
What you’ll learn:
- The impact of Voice of the Customer programs
- How to recruit the right people
- CS team performance
- How to choose the correct tools for CS
- Learn from mistakes
- Predictions for 2024
Key insights and takeaways for CSMs based on the interview:
Voice of the customer: The strategic implementation and use of a Voice of the Customer (VoC) program to gather meaningful customer insights. Close collaboration with the product team was key to aligning the VoC program with product development, roadmap influence, and customer priorities, thereby enhancing product design, marketing, and sales strategies.
Adapting to Post-Pandemic Work Formats: The shift to remote, hybrid, or on-site roles has redefined communication and team dynamics, necessitating deliberate strategies for fostering company culture and effective communication in remote environments.
Essential skills for CS professionals: In the context of building and deploying a Customer Success strategy, the conversation emphasizes the non-negotiable importance of empathy in the recruitment process. Empathy is highlighted not just as a buzzword but as a fundamental skill that enables team members to genuinely understand and address customer needs and problems. This skill extends beyond customer interaction to internal teamwork and leadership, ensuring a deep comprehension of colleagues’ perspectives and fostering a supportive and effective working environment.
Choosing the right tool for CS: The decision to implement tools such as CRMs or Customer Success platforms should be made based on the company’s size, customer portfolio, and the distinct needs of its customer segments. The process demands a thoughtful approach to organization, an understanding of customer interaction levels, and a clear plan before adopting any tool. Furthermore, it’s essential to have a strategy for using these tools effectively to measure performance, identify churn, renew contracts, and capture customer feedback.
Prediction for 2024: Trends from 2023 are expected to persist, notably the integration of AI and automation to streamline CS operations, allowing customer success managers (CSMs) to focus less on administrative tasks and more on high-value, human-centric customer interactions. Digital CS programs are anticipated to broaden, catering to all customer segments including SMBs, mid-market, and enterprises, emphasizing the need for personalized, strategic, and outcome-based approaches. The defining and adherence to ideal customer profiles (ICPs) will become more stringent, driven by a focus on acquiring customers that bring tangible value to the company.
Lessons learned in 2023
Gillian, reflecting on 2023, in the field of customer success, how would you characterize the year? Could you share some key lessons that stood out for you?
Sure, yeah, I’d say it was an unpredictable year, a good way to describe it. This rings true for me personally and for the broader landscape of customer success in tech. It was the first full year post-pandemic, with many offices reopening. We saw roles being redefined as remote, hybrid, or on-site. The pandemic has been around for a few years, and the distinctions between these work formats are becoming clearer. However, ‘hybrid’ in particular can encompass a variety of arrangements.
The year also witnessed the introduction of ChatGPT, among other new AI tools, and the integration of AI into existing applications. Additionally, there was an increase in layoffs, leading to more people searching for jobs.
The key lessons stood out for me, particularly in remote team environments. In such settings, communication needs to be more deliberate. In an office, communication can occur organically; you might overhear conversations and absorb the company’s branding and culture almost by osmosis. However, in a remote environment, fostering this culture and ensuring effective communication requires intentional effort. This includes implementing multi-directional, 360-degree feedback within teams. With many new hires joining companies that have distributed team structures, the chances for organic feedback diminish, making deliberate communication strategies even more crucial.
And if there’s one thing you could have done differently, from a CS perspective, last year, what would that be?
One thing I want to mention is that last year, I joined a new company. Part of that process involved outlining my strategic plan. Initially, this was more about the onboarding process and objectively setting out what I intended to do. However, once you get in the door and things start happening, situations change, and you adapt. With the other changes occurring within the teams, I realize in hindsight that I could have done much more to communicate and share my plan, particularly one that was iterated for the long term.
We often look for low-hanging fruit, quick wins, and what can be accomplished swiftly, especially in tech, where there is constant pressure to achieve outcomes quickly. However, there’s also the long game, involving plans that need to be considered over a longer term. This is particularly important when onboarding new people in any part of the company. If there’s a complex product, there’s a lot to learn, so long-term planning is crucial. Considering our customers is also paramount; they are at the forefront. We aim to ensure that it’s not obvious to customers if we are undergoing significant internal training. It’s essential to maintain a strong front for our customers.
In my case, this also involved hiring and onboarding new CSMs and managing key accounts that were long-time customers. These customers knew our product very well, so getting their feedback was also crucial. For me, this meant introducing success plan playbooks for new CSMs and ensuring transparency for customers, involving them in goal setting, and adopting a logical outcome approach. It was about making things clearer to my leadership, a form of managing up. Even as a leader, it’s important to ensure that the leadership team has confidence in what’s happening.
Voice of the customer programs
Speaking about how CS can help other departments, and support at a higher level, I’m gonna tackle a topic that we also approached on our blog, how CS can act as a silent architect, in supporting other teams. I’m curious about your experience with voice of the customers programs, how did you harness these insights to assist the product team?
So, I have examples from a company I worked at a couple of years ago, where I implemented a voice of the customer program. The way I managed to introduce it was through our CEO’s preference for having an NPS score. He was very adamant that we needed to have that, so that served as my foot in the door. I realized that even with just the NPS score, it was crucial to have good segmentation in our sampling for the NPS survey deployment to our customers. This was particularly important because we had multilingual customers, many of whom were exclusively Spanish-speaking. It was vital to ensure we weren’t missing out on feedback from a significant portion of our users.
There was the multilingual aspect, and also the need to consider different levels of stakeholders who might have very different perspectives when giving their score. Having secured approval, or my ‘foot in the door’, to launch the NPS survey, I collaborated closely with the product team. As we were a fairly small company, I was already quite involved with the product team, understanding what they needed to know to further design and develop the product, influence the roadmap, and ensure our priorities aligned with customer priorities. This was crucial for defining our ideal customer profile, not just for product development but for marketing and sales as well.
Leveraging the insights gained internally, I added questions to the NPS survey to garner deeper insights. My nearly six years of experience as a CSM at a consumer insights platform instilled in me a lot of research best practices. This background is why I’m passionate about working with customers and internal teams, often product teams, to extract deeper and more valuable insights from our customers.
How does this contribute to demonstrating the real value of customer success initiatives to your customers?
Um, yeah, so we were able to take action on the feedback. And in areas such as, I mean, when we got the feedback, there were a lot of single-choice questions. Directly from these, we would get data, but then that would be quantitative. But then we’d also capture a lot of qualitative information as well. That especially took a little bit of effort, but it was worth it to categorize into education, tech support, product development, for example. So, with those different areas, especially with tech support, we discovered some things that were actually maybe a blocker or barrier to users actually leveraging the product altogether. So it was quick and important to resolve that fairly quickly.
And then, regarding education, sometimes people give feedback, and you realize, oh, I don’t think that they are using that feature properly, or that’s not how it was intended. So whether it’s working with my day-to-day contact or, you know, however that might look, or if it’s writing an article for every user to reference, you know, there are lots of educational opportunities that we came across. So, one example that we did was creating an FAQ. And it, you know, makes you think, ‘Oh, why did we not have that?’ But what we had was more something from an onboarding perspective. But then this was from a tech support perspective, to have ongoing and having an FAQ available for people in a support environment.
So yeah, testimonials were useful in business reviews with customers as well. That goes a long way when you are working with other leaders, stakeholders who are leaders, and they don’t necessarily see the product itself. And they don’t have that clear picture of ‘Are we really getting value?’ or, you know, they might provide some numbers, but when they see that there are users that are passionate about using the product, that really is an extra factor there. That’s a lot of leverage.
So yeah, and we were able to do some productivity analysis that showed a correlation between our product data and our customers’ productivity data. So, to show that they had increased productivity due to the positive outcomes from using our product. So that was a good sort of ROI there with actual data.
Speaking about the voice of the customer programs. They’re all in supporting product teams and we know that boosting product adoption and usage is definitely a key focus for CSPs. And you build successful programs with a proven track record in this area. What was your strategy behind achieving such success?
The product team needed a lot of user feedback when they were designing several new UI designs, and I kind of alluded to that already. There were mobile, and desktop applications. So as well as a wearable device, so hardware product as well. And there were different user types. So including end users, supervisors, managers, and then in terms of stakeholders, or even, there’s leadership that wasn’t there. They were very removed, but they were also the decision-makers.
So customers were able to use data and feedback to champion the use of our product and make business decisions such as staffing schedules. So, we had data that informed what would be the most productive schedule for 24-hour operations in manufacturing. So I think having those actionable outcomes is really what shows the success of the voice of the customer program.
Recruiting the right people in CS
Building and deploying the CS strategy can’t be done without the proper team in place. And it’s all about having the right people doing the right things. So when it comes to having the right people, what’s that one skill in your recruitment process that you never compromise on?
Empathy? So that word, we hear it, other people might use the same answer. But this is one that always comes back to me. I’ve used it in, you know, bios to describe my approach to customer success in the past. So when you were talking about this question, I’m going back to that again because the ability for people to put themselves in someone else’s shoes is really important. It’s not only self-awareness, but it’s really understanding the perspective of the people that we are trying to, like, it’s their problems that we’re trying to solve.
So that’s when it comes to thinking about customers and products, but also internally with colleagues and people on our teams that we’re coaching and we’re leading. We have to understand where they’re coming from. So yeah, I think that’s something you can never get away from, empathy being really important.
CS team performance
And what does the CS team need in order to be performing above expectations?
The team needs to feel supported and valued, both as individuals and as a collective entity. This aspect, feeling valued as a team, is particularly significant, especially when we are working in distributed remote environments. In such settings, the opportunities to show support to each other aren’t as readily available. Yes, we have tools like Slack, but communication there can be quite flat, so to speak. We can use emojis, but I believe it requires a concerted effort to ensure both individual and team support. It’s one thing for individuals to feel supported, but fostering a supportive team environment might take even more work. This is where people should feel that they can rely on one another and feel backed by the company.
Part of creating this environment involves regular feedback, careful planning, and celebrating the wins. I’ve noticed, in my own experience, that we can be so goal-driven that even when we achieve our objectives, we barely acknowledge them before moving on to the next task. It’s crucial to pause and reflect on our accomplishments and the lessons learned, as this helps inform the direction we move forward as a team.
Choosing the right tools for CS
How crucial is choosing the right tools and technology for CS team success?
Yeah, this is a really interesting question because for me, I can sort of visualize different scenarios and different companies I’ve worked at. It really depends on the stage of maturity a company is at. This includes considering how mature the customers are in terms of their adaptation and the value they’re getting from your product.
The size of the company is part of that maturity, in terms of the number of employees, but it’s also about the size of the customer portfolio. These are not always, often not, parallel numbers. This also depends on the type of user, like, the product itself—is this enterprise? Do we have a couple of really big customers, or what does that look like? It’s important to be organized at any stage, I’ll say that. And the tools that it takes to be organized might be different as well. If you have a lot of different customers, you’re going to want a CRM earlier than if you just have, say, 10 customers. That CRM, I think it’s important to get that implemented early. But within reason, because maybe there are other priorities when you need to think about the deeper relationships with a small number of customers, maybe there’s a different tool that’s important there.
So I’m going to say that, yeah, it definitely depends. And you don’t want to have a tool without already having a plan. When I say ‘tool,’ I mean there are a lot of different CMS, like Customer Success platforms out there. And onboarding platforms as well. And before you can implement those, you have to know what you’re going to do with it, and what your strategy is. So that’s the other part of it. There needs to be a means of measuring performance, identifying churn, renewing contracts, and capturing customer feedback. So if you can manage all of that without a tool, and really be clear about what you need in the tool, I think that’s a good way to do it.
I mean, we’re all familiar with spreadsheets as being one of those early tools and then building out from there. Same with playbooks. Yeah. So there’s a lot you can do without a platform that will maybe inform which platform you’ll be more informed to choose a platform that’s appropriate.
What’s the difference between a good CS team and a great CS team?
A great CS team has collaborative relationships with nearly every other function in the organization knows their resources and having great relationships with the customers. So in the example of high touch and strategic counts, there’s a lot of multithreaded relationships. Is a popular term that I see a lot of people using and then they lift each other up, that’s the other thing. So every customer is a little bit different. And so sometimes there’s a lot, to learn from each other. And so if we have a team, it’s kind of alluding to that before to have felt supported as a team, and individuals, but then also, a great team will lift each other up and support each other.
Common mistakes in CS
What are some typical mistakes that often lead to failure or underperformance, but more importantly, how would you suggest fixing each of these issues?
I’m gonna say not getting to the bottom of customer feedback and details getting lost in translation between customers and product managers, especially if you have a product team that’s quite removed from the customer. And what they have to say, so having a process for getting the basic details from customers and facilitating recorded direct interactions between customers and the product owner, or the product team in some way, I think it depends on the product a little bit, but this is coming from working on complex products.
But as a result of the customers having really complex needs, and it’s the challenge of as a company, not getting sort of drawn into solving for one customer’s problems that maybe are completely different from another’s, where we need to have that ideal customer profile where there’s a product that is adding value, and but more than just adding value, but solving the problem across the board as much as possible.
So that can be a challenge in some industries, where there isn’t necessarily a standard for this new type of work. And, because they haven’t had the technology before. So there’s a balance of sort of starting to create some standards for an industry potentially and looking at what makes the most sense, across different organizations using your product. So the failure to not hear all of the voices and really understand the complexity, or the granularity of the complexities. If that’s the case, if that’s sort of part of the scenario.
What experience in your past stands out as the hands-down worst way to do CS?
And so my answer here is sending weekly emails that have the same usage metrics for every customer. Sometimes it ends up being the same metrics, like the same numbers and figures as well, each week, if things aren’t changing from one customer to the next. And this partly, I’m going to say, comes from the past, this is from the early days of CES. And so it’s probably the same for a lot of people. And those same companies are not doing that anymore. But it’s what customer success has evolved, and you know, it’s just, if you catch yourself doing something where you, as a leader, or even if it’s an individual contributor, you probably are going to spot this before anybody else because you’re the one actually carrying through and doing these tasks that are quite tactical that actually don’t make sense anymore. Maybe it did at one time. So it’s good to share that and look for solutions to what can be done differently. But yeah, if it’s a waste of resources, even if it’s automated, you know, if it’s not valuable to the customer, then it’s going to be more detrimental than anything.
You have to have an interpretation of the data. And usage doesn’t mean anything if people aren’t solving for needs. So if you’re talking about, yeah, you’ve got a lot of your employees, they’re all logging in, they’re using the product, but are they getting any value from the product? Are they just logging in and not actually getting the value from it, or are they having a poor user experience? So, yeah, the benefit of the tool, if it’s not being experienced by the appropriate stakeholders, then yeah, having data has to be useful. And taking the next step of interpreting that data to be, you know, we talk about being trusted advisors, for example.
So, yeah, I think that’s what we’re all interested in now with, we’ve got a lot more automation and now AI, kind of leveling up from just automation. So how do we leverage that so it’s still a human experience?
Learning from mistakes
What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made in your executive CS role that turned into a valuable learning experience?
Yeah, so I picked something that was—well, I’ll just, I’ll say, yeah, I’ll give my answer. And then at the end, kind of tie it together. So, misunderstanding a deadline. That in itself, it’s like, okay, well, that can happen easily. But with this, in this case, I was doing a recorded interview with a customer. And it was the first one we were doing, so I was doing it as one of the leaders. And I suddenly found myself with only a day or two to do this because I was going to be going on a work trip. And I’m going to be on the road. And then, what am I going to have time to do this? And I hadn’t yet used ChatGPT.
So, this recorded interview with the customer was about the day in the life of a customer and, of course, how our product fits in there. So, yeah, it was a very helpful tool. And I’m going to—yeah, I basically just took my prompt, which was something along the lines of, ‘This is the company and the product. This is the customer profile, the user profile. And I need 20 questions to ask in an interview to understand a day in the life of this person.’ And yeah, I tweaked the questions that came out, but they were very good and saved me a ton of time, actually. So, you justifiably, maybe the questions were even better than what I might have come up with, in some ways.
So, yeah, it was a good kind of silver lining there. It kind of forced me to do something that I hadn’t done before and ended up being better for it. Of course, now, I use it quite a bit.
Advice for CS
What piece of advice would you offer to CS executives today, growing from your own lessons learned?
I’m being intentional about training and facilitating a truly customer-centric organization. And having revenue numbers tied to measuring CS performance. That one, I almost hesitate a little bit, but you do need to have metrics with CS, and right now revenue is so important. So I guess it does depend on if the CS team is fully owning renewals, for example, or upsell, or what that looks like. But yeah, for CS, to really be tied to value, it makes sense to have revenue numbers associated with CS performance. I mean, CS are spending the most in-depth time with customers.
Predictions for 2024
As we wrap up, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the future. What are your predictions for the customer success industry in 2024? Are there any trends or changes you foresee that we should all be keeping an eye on?
Yeah, I like this one. Everybody’s done doing their predictions for 2024. So, I’ve thought about this before seeing what everybody else wrote. And then, kind of like on LinkedIn, I mean, when I say what everyone else is writing. So, my prediction for the customer success industry in 2024 is that there will be a continuation of a lot of the trends that developed in 2023. So, to be specific, AI and automation of CS operations, incorporated to enable CSM to spend less time on administrative tasks, digital CS programs that are designed for customers at all revenue-based segments—SMB, mid-market, and enterprise—rather than the original kind that digital was, you know, in the sort of probably two, three years ago, I feel like that was where the focus was. Digital was for low-touch, small customers, but there is a huge space for digital programs for enterprise so the time we do spend with high-value customers is what needs to be a human touch. And, you know, it doesn’t need to be, we don’t need to use our time for something that we could have AI doing, for example.
Also, more one-to-many approaches, but also more personalized, and strategic outcomes based on human interactions with customers. Also, companies are defining their ideal customer profile more now. And I think, and being more disciplined about signing on customers that fit that ICP, I think that’s becoming more important. Now, just because we are trying to do more with less. So, we don’t have that space to be to have a customer that’s not bringing the company value. And companies will have better data in their products for customers to leverage without the support of a CSM, for example. That the data is really important for our customers to have to be experiencing value.
And a couple more that I have: Customer success managers need to have access to internal customer revenue data. Whether they’re owning it or not, it’s really key to the success of a CSM. And customer-facing product data to be able to ensure that their customers are realizing the value of their subscription and ROI. So, related to that, more CS functions will own the revenue for expansion, upsell, and cross-sell businesses. So, that’s my observation. But that is a change in skill sets. So, I think that, you know, that could be a lot of why we’re seeing a lot of movement around in CS. The focus on what skill sets are is changing too.
And lastly, I expect there will be a continued increase in CS jobs posted in sectors experiencing growth and the need for improved automation and cybersecurity. So, healthcare, the legal sector, construction, and enterprise-level administration, are all industries that are—I don’t want to say late to the party, but slower to adopt technology in general. And a lot of it due to the large-scale aspect of it and the privacy and data security concerns as well. So, I foresee there being a lot more jobs in those sectors of Tech.
Thank you so much, Gillian, for sharing your insights with me today. It’s been a pleasure having you on the show, and I look forward to seeing how your predictions for the customer success industry unfold in 2024.
Thank you very much.